Well, maybe not everywhere, but in my backyard, this seems to be true. Or maybe I’m too particular. I don’t know. I’ve visited a number of area churches over the past several months, as well as attending presbytery meetings and other gatherings at which people proclaim the Word. At the risk of sounding like an obnoxious seminary student… I’ve not been overly impressed.
I have actually read manuscripts that moved me more than the in-real-life moments as part of a congregation. This sort of surprised me, since there is something so very powerful about the words being spoken into a living space, with others in the room taking them in and creating an energy that the written word doesn’t typically evoke. And yet, there it is.
In fact, one reason I started reading online and printed sermons was that I was afraid I had lost the ability to listen without a critical ear. That perhaps those preaching classes in which we offer critiques for improvement had made it impossible to just receive what God has for me on a given day. I was fully prepared to be unmoved. And yet, I was.
I got to thinking yesterday: what is it that I am looking for, but not finding in these sermons that leave me wanting? What is it that makes a “good” sermon? Or a good preacher?
First, I ought to be able to tell that it comes from deep within the preacher. There is something about those weeks that one struggles with the text and with God that leaves an indelible mark on that preacher. That mark doesn’t display itself in a joke that is only tangentially related to the topic at hand. It causes the preacher to choose an approach that treats the subject with respect and with honest care for the way it might land on other people as the words fall from the pulpit.
Second, I ought to be able to follow the flow of the preacher’s thoughts. Quantity of illustrations, references to literature and even scriptural quotations does not trump quality. When the congregation must go traipsing with you through a series of stories, especially without solid transition between them, we aren’t likely to keep up. Remember, you’re the only one in the room who knows the way. The ones you leave behind aren’t likely to catch up later.
Third, your physical and vocal presence should resemble who you are during the remainder of the service, as well as before and after. Yes, you need to own the space and command the pulpit. But your preacher voice should just be an enhanced you, not a possessed person.
Finally, I ought never feel manipulated. Yes, you want to move me to action of some sort. But that is really up to the Holy Spirit, isn’t it? The preacher is responsible for setting the stage for the Spirit’s work. Sadly, the Spirit has no room to move me if I am responding to human commands that are couched in spiritual words.
There are a handful of words that come to mind as I consider the best preachers I’ve been blessed to hear: challenging and compassionate, authentic and truthful, creative and accurate, passionate and controlled, humble and secure. That is what I aim for. Is it fair to expect the same from others?